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There’s a game for that

Thursday, April 4, 2013
Thomas Urell
t.urell [at]
(617) 373-2821


Pop Up Lab
Matt Gray (right), assistant professor of theater, and graduate student Nilesh Shahdadburi demonstrate the Virtual Improv project which aims to promote social intelligence through virtual theater. Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

Published by News @ Northeastern April 3, 2013

By Angela Herring


With new technologies and interfaces, the gaming world is pushing the boundaries of what it means to play. Today computer games aim to do much more than offer players the chance to shoot the bad guy. We can now use them to learn how to read, how to make environmentally conscious decisions, and even how to become a better actress, all without sacrificing the fun.

Playing a game inherently requires a certain amount of learning, according to Casper Harteveld, assis­tant pro­fessor of art and design. For example, you need to learn how the game space works and how you can level up your character within it. So while it was perhaps an unconscious development, games have become an ideal educational platform for teaching a broad spec­trum of topics.

Walter Huang (right) demonstrates the Affective Media project a group of students. Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

At the fourth Pop Up Open Lab Expe­ri­ence and Recep­tion, held in the Dig­ital Media Com­mons on Monday, researchers from across the uni­ver­sity came together to demonstrate how they are both utilizing and optimizing games to address a variety of problems. The event was hosted by the Office of the Provost, the Col­lege of Arts, Media and Design and the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence.

Many of the games on display focus on health-​​related challenges or explore back-​​end methods for making those games more engaging and effective in their educational goals.

A capstone team comprising four physical therapy students and one neuroscience student is exploring how a robotic smart glove for stroke survivors can more effectively help patients regain their motor skills. The team believes that if the user’s hand motions con­trol a vir­tual envi­ron­ment instead of an image of a hand on the computer screen, she will be more likely to return to the device repeat­edly, said team member Jacob Wat­terson. Making that vir­tual envi­ron­ment part of a game should only increase this like­li­hood, he said.

Mark Sivak (left), assistant academic specialist in game design, demonstrates the ATLAS smart glove to third-​​year student Ryan Stewart. Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

The issue of repeata­bility seemed to be on many of the researchers’ minds. For example, Gillian Smith, an assistant professor of game design, is exploring how auto­matic content generation can expand the game space to make it more dynamic for the user. Professor Magy Seif El-​​Nasr, director of the game design pro­gram, and Rus­sell Pensyl, a pro­fessor of inter­ac­tive media, are working on incor­po­rating emo­tion recog­ni­tion into the gaming expe­ri­ence. The goal of the Affec­tive Media project is to allow games to respond to a user’s expe­ri­ence in order to gen­erate con­tent that will be more likely to keep them engaged.

Alessandro Canossa, asso­ciate professor of game design, is developing tools for designers to help them make better games for their users. Using the Google Maps API, his G-​​Player tool maps the virtual space of a game and shows designers the areas players most often populate. If they see that an entire area of the game is never used, they might either expand the area’s acces­si­bility or cut it out com­pletely. This way the designers can help pro­mote greater interest and usability, he said.

Other games on display explored a variety of challenges. Some aim to promote healthy behav­iors while others explore the use of interactive storytelling to promote engagement. The diversity of projects showed that gaming has clearly reached its tentacles into a variety of disciplines. What was once a tool merely for fun is now a fun tool for edu­ca­tion and learning across a spec­trum of topics.

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